After a two and a half year hiatus, the State of Missouri has carried out the death penalty, administering a lethal injection to one Joseph Paul Franklin last week.
Mr. Franklin’s case is unique in some respects, and typical in others.
It is unique in that Franklin was a serial killer of strangers on a nationwide scale, motivated by pathological racism.
The crime for which he was executed was committed in October 1977, when he lay in ambush and shot three strangers with a high powered rifle as they left a St. Louis synagogue. One of them died.
The crime went unsolved for a number of years, until 1994, when Franklin contacted authorities from a federal penitentiary where he was serving multiple life sentences for other racially motivated murders, and confessed to the St. Louis synagogue shooting some seven years earlier.
Another unusual circumstance about Franklin’s case is that it appears from the record that he himself addressed the jury at his trial and urged them to give him the death penalty, which they did.
He then filed on his own a written waiver of his automatic appeal, and urged the setting of an execution date.
This is unlike so many condemned to death, whom, by this point in the proceedings are begging the Courts to spare their lives.
Even so, as is so common in capital cases, it still took the state almost two decades from the time of the trial to carry out the death sentence.
All that time, teams of lawyers on both sides of the case were busy litigating and arguing in the courts all kinds of issues such as whether or not Franklin was mentally competent and whether or not the chemicals used in lethal injections in Missouri were so potentially pain causing as to constitute cruel and unusual punishment in violation of the Eighth Amendment.
Few lawyers approach their jobs with the passion of those individuals facing a death sentence. Their work truly is a matter of life and death.
Part of their work involves finding some basis to have a death sentence vacated or commuted on technical or other grounds.
Another function of their work is mere delay, using the system to keep their clients alive for as long as they can. With creative, spurious, and successive appeals and arguments, they try to keep the case open and the sentence from being carried out for as long as possible.
In Joseph Paul Franklin’s case, where he confessed to the murder, had been convicted of a series of other similar murders, asked the jury to give him the death sentence, and waived his appeal in writing, it still took the system two decades to put him to death. Much of that was the noble work of lawyers trying to head off his ultimate fate for as long as possible, the last such effort being a challenge to the chemicals used in the execution process.
This all comes at an enormous price for the years of efforts of lawyers, prosecutors and judicial officials.
Studies have shown that the average death sentence costs in the millions of dollars in resources over the years before it is carried out in a given case, many times over the cost of a lifetime of incarceration.
Currently there are 48 inmates on death row awaiting execution in Missouri. All but 13 were sentenced to death more than 10 years ago. Nine were sentenced to death more than 20 years ago. There have been only eight executions in Missouri in the last 10 years.
I don’t disagree with the notion that the government should be able to execute the most despicable, murderous members of society. But under the current circumstances, there is something wrong with this picture.
Ken Garten is a Blue Springs attorney. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org